To many New Zealanders, the King Country is a misunderstood province, a sprawling, rural backwater which lacks easily defined borders to help provide it with a cohesive identity.
It should not be this way. After all, the region contains some of New Zealand’s most stunning scenic attractions; the Waitomo Caves, the Whanganui River and the “Bridge to Nowhere,” the “Forgotten Highway,” the Tongariro National Park, which includes the otherworldly Tongariro Crossing one-day walk, Lake Taupo, and Tongariro River fly-fishing are but a few highlights.
But even from within, the area has struggled to identify a common binding agent. Its main centres seemingly have one eye on marriage and the other glancing outward in search of a better offer.
It’s as if in between each town the miles and miles of green hills, ring-barked with sheep trails, provide not only an economic backbone, but also a barrier to social interaction and cohesiveness.
The name King Country actually derives from Maori wars of the 1860s, a place where Maori retreated to from the invasion of colonists from the north. The hilly, inhospitable bushland was perfect for keeping the Pakeha at bay, at least until white colonial presence in New Zealand was eventually formalised.
To play a word association game today, the words “King Country” would elicit an overwhelming response of “Colin Meads.” Pinetree Meads that is, the greatest of all great All Blacks. Well, at least until that pesky Richie McCaw came along and made his claim to the title.
Colin’s farm was located across the road from his brother Stan, just south of Te Kuiti, in the picturesque northern King Country. It is a rich rugby area, home also for a while to the All Blacks’ 2003 World Cup coach John Mitchell, and another notable rugby coach, Noel “Snackles” McQuilkin. In the 1990s, McQuilkin was a trailblazer for New Zealand coaches in Ireland, and his son Kurt followed him over and earned five test caps in the emerald green.
The region is less heralded for its cricketers, with only the occasional Northern Districts player coming from within, although Ewen Chatfield’s brother Gavin, a handy all-rounder, worked a farm deep in remote Aria. Gary Troup, a barrel-chested left-arm bowler who played 15 tests for New Zealand, was born in Taumarunui, as was current NZ Women’s all-rounder, Liz Perry.
The father of current Black Caps opening bowler Tim Southee also grew up in Taumarunui. Ironically they were a tennis family, but perhaps that’s starting to spread the association a little too thinly.
Taumarunui, or “The Heart of the King Country” as it calls itself, strongly identifies with a history of sawmilling, and later as a major hub for the railways, captured by Anglican priest turned folk singer Peter Cape in his 1959 song “Taumarunui on the Main Trunk Line.”
Further south, the road rises past the renowned feat of railway engineering, the “Raurimu Spiral,” then up to the central volcanic plateau and a landscape that all Lord of the Rings fans would immediately recognize.
And tucked away on the very western edge of the Tongariro National Park, under the imposing shadow of the majestic volcano Mt Ruapehu, is home for those detained at her majesty’s pleasure, Waikune Prison.
No longer in service, it now lies inert; a decrepit jumble of rotted timber and weed-infested ashphalt, favoured only by vandals, as well as artists and photographers seeking to add to their portfolios a record of the decay which leaches through much of rural New Zealand.
Save for the Russian Front, as inhospitable a site for a prison it is difficult to envisage. Winter bites hard and cold in Waikune; not for these prisoners and officers the grand Chateau Tongariro, or centrally heated chalets and duck-down ski suits favoured by fun-seekers a few kilometres away, on the north face of the mountain.
No longer in service, it now lies inert; a decrepit jumble of rotted timber and weed-infested ashphalt
Summer brings welcome relief from the cold but, ironically, prisoner numbers historically decreased in this time. It seems that however harsh the environment, many were prepared to commit a crime of a level low enough for them to avoid incarceration at a serious jail like Paremorero, but still sufficient enough to draw a custodial sentence, and ensure that their six-month stretch provided them a bed and three square meals a day, rather than face an uncertain winter somewhere on the outside.
In its heyday in the 70s and 80s, for the prisoners spending summer in Waikune, things were not all bad. After all, this was a low-security prison without walls and barbed wire fences, just an inviting driveway down to the intersection with State Highway 4. Any inmate overcome with boredom or homesickness was free to wander off and try their luck at hitching a ride back to wherever they fancied – although in the knowledge that their next appearance in a courtroom would have the judge in a far sterner mood.
It is not known who it was precisely who promulgated the idea, but, in the early 70s, an opportunity to solve two problems at once was identified and acted upon. The Taumarunui Cricket Sub-Association had a competition comprising five teams, the sum total of all cricketers and ring-ins in the district.
But the odd number of teams made for a frustrating bye.
Meanwhile, Waikune Prison administrators saw an opportunity to break the boredom cycle, and reward the best behaved inmates with a weekly bus trip and a game of cricket in the Saturday competition, thus, with the willing assent of the cricket association, solving the bye problem.
A match made in heaven? Maybe. Or perhaps an accident waiting to happen?
What this competition lacked in class it made up for in enthusiasm and colour. Just like in all country cricket across the world, there were characters at every turn. Funny, outrageous and eccentric, all bound together by a love of the game and, more often than not, the demon brown ale.
Opening the bowling for the ‘Railways’ club, for example, was bulldog-like left-armer Ben Goldsworthy, who shuffled in wearing his trademark hat, a weird cross between a white beret and Dr Harry’s flat cap.
Their off-spinner was the burly Phil South, who snorted disconcertingly as he ran into bowl. Phil’s trademark was his unusual habit of shining the ball under his armpits, not on the side of his trousers like everybody else. This invariably wore holes in his shirt, which were tinged with a red stain around the circumference. I guess this was the idea, getting the ball direct access into a ready moisture pit.
Just like in all country cricket across the world, there were characters at every turn. Funny, outrageous and eccentric, all bound together by a love of the game and, more often than not, the demon brown ale.
Railways also produced Sonny Murphy, a Pacific Islander who could switch from gentle giant to volcanic-tempered brute in the blink of an eye. Sonny proudly named his first two sons Rugby and Cricket. I sometimes wonder how those kids are doing today as adults, and if they ever took a trip down to the deed poll office.
Sonny hated getting out. One day he skied one high up towards mid-off, and, seeing that a catch was in the offing, charged at the fielder, bat raised high above him, screaming at the top of his lungs. Remarkably the catch was held and Sonny was duly dispatched to enjoy one of his many suspensions.
At the other end of the spectrum, Englishman Thomas Umfrey Wells was a Cambridge Blue in Rugby who, after migrating to New Zealand, served as headmaster of Wanganui Collegiate between 1960 and 1980, spending his summers at a country house just outside Taumarunui.
A capable batsman, he played for the Veneer club side, and bought much needed decorum to the competition, on and off the field, becoming known by all as ‘Sir Tom.’ For years afterwards I would scour the Queen’s honours list, as I suspect he did too, looking for confirmation of an OBE or similar. Sadly however, he passed away in 2001, sans OBE, but remembered fondly nevertheless.
Matiere was a club side based around a small hamlet, 45 minutes to the west, a predominantly sheep farming area where my two brothers still work the land today on adjoining properties.
It was always a raffle turning up to their home ground to discover the state of the outfield. If the local farmer allocated mowing duties was sleeping off a hangover, or had left it for too long in between cuts, we were bound for a low scoring match, large clumps of grass clippings acting as extra fieldsmen.
Athletic was the silver-tail club, based at the Taumarunui Domain, blessed with a dedicated practice net and even a gymnasium for indoor practice if it was wet. New Zealand captain Jeremy Coney once passed through town and wandered along to cricket practice as Test cricket captains do, and was amused to find that the supports for the net were actually telephone poles; “surplus stock” apparently, which were concreted permanently into the ground.
If the local farmer allocated mowing duties was sleeping off a hangover, or had left it for too long in between cuts, we were bound for a low scoring match, large clumps of grass clippings acting as extra fieldsmen.
Jerry didn’t fancy a bat, lest he middle one into a pole and get caught flush on the rebound, but he was happy enough to waft down a few of the ‘autumn leaves’ he was famous for and enjoy a bit of banter with ‘Hogget’, ‘Grasshopper’, ‘Erection’ and the rest of the local lads.
The fifth team was the local High School side; one, or at times perhaps two, schoolteachers, plus a collection of some keen cricketers and a few ‘fielders’ thrown in to make up the numbers.
Note that this was not the first XI, rather it was the XI. Any 13-year old third-former with an interest in the game didn’t have to wait until senior school to work his way into the side; he was straight into mixing it with the men. And prisoners.
My first recollection of cricket against Waikune Prison was mum dropping me off at the school, then walking down the driveway past the tennis courts towards the playing fields to find a prison bus stopped in the driveway.
The bus was blocked from progressing any further by a car, seemingly abandoned, parked in a particularly unhelpful manner. On board the bus was a driver, doubling as a warden – or perhaps a warden doubling as a bus driver – plus eleven of the most motley, unlikely looking cricketers you’d ever wish to see.
The warden quickly seized the initiative, asking for a volunteer from the back of the bus. A skinny, weedy-looking bloke jumped off, assessed the situation, broke off some the mesh fencing surrounding the tennis courts, twisted it into shape, and before you could say “Hadlee’s a wanker,” sprung open the driver’s door. Problem solved.
Over the years Waikune would surprise us with the occasional player who had actually played the game before. Word would filter through during the week that there was a new inmate who had once opened the batting for Central Districts in first class cricket, for example.
This would invariably prove to be a gross embellishment, no more accurate than the rumour our accounting teacher Miss Vile had once been a Playboy centerfold.
They once fielded a father and son combination, the Walkers, from the Wellington region. Dad had obviously played a bit before and didn’t seem a bit fazed that his son had followed him, just as unsuccessfully, into a life of crime.
Another memorable character wore a WG Grace-style beard, and always batted without gloves. It was there that any comparison with the cricketing legend ended. His particular quirk was to take guard on all three stumps, from over the stumps at first then, stepping out a couple of paces from the crease line, getting new marks from straight on, and also from where the bowler would deliver. Keeping in mind that our pitch was matting over concrete, he would then proceed to drop to his knees and, using the edge of his bat as a ruler, draw solid chalk lines to make a large triangle.
This was either a man well ahead of his time, or else Waikune Prison housed the inventor of the on-screen telestrator.
Needless to say, one of two things invariably happened. The bowler would immediately switch to around the wicket, thus rendering the markings redundant – which was good for a laugh, although at my tender age I wouldn’t have been prodding the bear so enthusiastically myself.
Or else, despite WG having laid out Pythagorus’ Theorem on the pitch, it did nothing to improve his hand to eye co-ordination, and it would only be a matter of time before he missed a straight one and the ordeal was over.
It was important always to bat first against Waikune, lest the match would be over too quickly and I’d find myself back home with time still left in the day to help Dad finish his jobs in the garden.
Of all the tiny totals Waikune made, and there were many, the lowest was 11, even by their miserable standards a shoddy effort. But there were extenuating circumstances.
For most of their players, cricket was a minor concern. Their prize was the outing itself. And the chance to share some quality time with loved ones who were allowed to enjoy visiting rights outside of the confines of the prison.
The trouble was, with only one warden to control things, allowing prisoners and their girlfriends to mingle was only ever going to lead to one outcome – nature taking its course.
The school sports ground bordered the local cemetery, the boundary marked by a simple, wire fence, and a few stray trees and grass clumps dotted along the fence line.
For most of their players, cricket was a minor concern. Their prize was the outing itself.
Out on the field, as wickets started to tumble, new bastmen failed to arrive. Invariably there would be lots of shouting and arm-waving, until a prisoner would reluctantly emerge from behind a tree, hitching up his strides as he did so.
Similarly, batsmen did not exactly sell their wickets dearly, and upon dismissal, most could not get their pads off quickly enough, before racing back to the cemetery to resume where they left off.
It was clearly an unsatisfactory situation, and the Sub-Association committee met several times to review Waikune’s position in the comp.
In the end, the matter resolved itself, a nasty incident at the High School sealing their fate once and for all.
Batting first, one of the High School batsmen pushed to mid-off and called for a sharp single. The fieldsman picked up cleanly and, with a run-out clearly on the cards, rifled a throw at the stumps at the bowler’s end. He missed by a whisker, the ball whistling away to the boundary, a very tight single becoming a gift five runs.
Most unimpressed was the wicketkeeper, a solidly built Maori chap with an impressive array of tattoos, long before they became fashionable.
He marched up towards mid-off, plenty of purpose in his stride. “What did you do that for?” he growled.
“I nearly got him out”, came the reply. Fair enough too.
“Throw it to me. I’ve got the gloves”, the wicketkeeper demanded.
“But there was a run-out at this end.” Mid-off’s logic was compelling, but seniority and law of the jungle meant that he was losing the argument.
“What do you think I wear these for?” He was shouting now, waving his gloves in mid-off’s face. “Throw it to me.” And then as he turned, “stupid c**t.”
That was enough for mid-off. He might not have been inside for as long, or had as many tatts, but he couldn’t allow himself to be humiliated in front of the other inmates.
“What’s that? Who are you calling a c**t?”
It was a rhetorical question. We all knew what was unfolding, and like a slow-motion car crash, we were all powerless to stop it.
The ritual played itself out, the wicketkeeper taking off his gloves and pads before both men removed their shirts, all the while eyeing each other off from a few paces away. Their teammates, as if by instinct, formed a circle around them, creating a ring to keep both the combatants inside and the undermanned warden on the outer.
I remember feeling sorry for mid-off. For one, he was in the right, but the wicketkeeper had clearly been around long enough to know not to pick a fight he wasn’t going to win.
The scrap itself lasted only around 30 seconds, the wicketkeeper moving in and felling mid-off with a lethal combination of punches, then finishing him off with a couple of vicious kicks to the ribs before his teammates decided enough was enough.
The ritual played itself out, the wicketkeeper taking off his gloves and pads before both men removed their shirts, all the while eyeing each other off from a few paces away.
To say the atmosphere was a bit confused would be an understatement. We simply wanted to play cricket, but the warden was having none of it, ordering the inmates back onto the bus, leaving behind a string of disappointed and unsatisfied women alongside the cemetery fence.
Within the week Waikune prison were excommunicated from the competition, never to return. This was no environment for impressionable young schoolboys to be mixed up in, whatever the inconvenience of the bye.
Sadly, another generation along, and Waikune is not the only side which no longer exists. In fact, none of the sides exist any longer, and there isn’t even a local competition anymore.
Such is the reality for rural communities, in New Zealand and worldwide, where lack of employment opportunities and changing land use serves to drive school leavers towards the cities, most of them permanently.
A world, where even rural prisons like Waikune are deemed to be uneconomic, sees them close down in favour of new concrete jungles situated closer to the big cities.
Should any reader find themselves on the drive north from Wellington to Auckland, consider doing yourself a favour next time and, instead of heading up the Desert Road from Waiouru to Turangi, slide across to the western side of Mt Ruapehu instead, through Ohakune and its “Big Carrot,” to link up with State Highway 4.
If you like, take a quick diversion at Horopito to view Smash Palace, a jungle of rusted, gutted car bodies, made famous in the 1981 film of the same name, starring Kiwi legend Bruno Lawrence.
And then, just a few kilometres north, spare a thought, as you drive past the now abandoned Waikune Prison, for a team which may not go down in history as one of New Zealand’s more accomplished cricket sides, but who were surely one of the most colourful.